Some TV shows have dumped main title montages completely, others are so mundane that you can’t get past them fast enough.
Then there are those that are just breathtaking, week after week.
Whether leading an audience into a critical documentary or a gripping drama, the best title designers find a visual language that communicates the most salient and significant qualities of a show in just a few minutes, and keeps you coming back.
This year’s Emmy nominees in the main title design category were faced with doing just that for an incredibly wide range of shows: gangster drama “Boardwalk Empire,” thriller “Rubicon,” financial drama “Too Big to Fail,” character drama “Any Human Heart,” and historical adventure “Game of Thrones.” But regardless of the show and its theme, the challenge is the same.
“The fun of doing these main titles is getting to distill the main themes of the show into concentrated bits of filmmaking,” says Karin Fong, who is nominated for both “Rubicon” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “You’re trying to communicate the emotional pull of the series with just a few images.”
And that inspiration can take many forms. In the case of “Boardwalk Empire,” Fong focused on the main character, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, and his ability to remain untouched by the law. So he is seen at the beach but never getting dirty, despite the swirling surf nearby.
In “Rubicon,” Fong relied on a more graphic ideas meant to show a character trying to draw connections from things as seemingly unrelated as a crossword puzzle and a want ad in a newspaper.
Sometimes, one sequence isn’t enough. Angus Wall, who is nominated for “Game of Thrones,” decided that four title sequences, each one showing areas on a map where that particular episode takes place, would best suit the show.
“You’re moving on the inside of a globe, and there are different title sequences depending on where the story of that episode takes place, so the audience gets a sense of where they’ll be going this time,” says Wall. “You also see buildings rising and falling, which is meant to show the changing nature of things as time goes on.”
The idea of a journey played a part in the title design for “Any Human Heart.” Paul McDonnell wanted to give the audience a sense of the main character’s trek through the tragic loss of his son as well as his eventual triumph over sadness.
“We show him always walking toward the sun,” says McDonnell. “Even when he’s walking alone and hunched over, the sun is always in front of him, so you have the sense that he will find his way through things.”
Faced with the task of conveying the progress of the recent financial meltdown, Michael Riley put together a title sequence that also becomes a primer for “Too Big to Fail.” Utilizing news footage taken from a few years ago as well as some specifically shot for the sequence, the goal is to prep the audience for what became the bailout talks.
“You’re always trying to give the audience enough information so they know where they are in a show, and in this case we’re dealing with complex ideas about finance, so that was very important,” says Riley. “I think we got there by focusing on human emotion which, when you’ve just got a few minutes, it’s always a good place to start.”
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